Makerspaces: They seem to be all the buzz, but the concept that drives them isn’t new. For many years, we’ve been focused on directing every moment of our students’ lives. As parents, the lives of children are scheduled to the point they never have a moment to decide for themselves what to do. So when did we decide as adults that play is a bad thing?
Exploration is key to problem solving, critical thinking and self-regulation. Children learn by role-playing real-life situations, rearranging toys, touching materials or using items in unconventional ways. So why not include Makerspaces in our school environments?
Let us describe an actual situation that happened in our classroom. We gave students a variety of materials including yarn, tape, spools, buttons and wheels. Students were asked to design a pulley that could pull a water bottle off the ground. No other instructions were given (intentionally) to allow students to explore. It might have taken 5 minutes if we’d explained or modeled how to do it, but instead our students struggled to make their pulleys work for about 20 minutes. From the corner of the room we heard cheering. One group made a pulley by tying the yarn to the doorknob and stringing it through the handle of the water bottle. Another group saw this and decided to improve on the pulley by including one of the spools. Another student asked if the way a pulley is pulled changes it’s name and then looked it up online. Two students from the first group went to another group that was struggling to help. The resulting pulley was an improvement on the first pulley. At the end of half an hour every student had made a pulley and could explain how it worked.
Hearing about our success with the pulley lesson another teacher said she was going to try it. Later in the day she returned and complained that it was too hard and her students couldn’t follow directions. She was frustrated because they were just playing around.
Wasn’t that the whole point?
She didn’t have time for that. It was a waste of time.
Some days aren’t the right days for play. But, that thirty minutes of play time was invaluable. Our students understood and could explain pulleys and aced this part of the unit. Her students knew the basics, but lacked any desire to investigate further, learn more or try to deepen their grasp of the concept.
Thirty minutes of play is a pretty small price to pay, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The environment you as the teacher creates is the way your students will respond. Students need to feel it is safe to play. It is safe to explore. It is safe to take risks and try things out. It is safe to share your learning. It is safe to ask for help.
That takes time.
The next day three students in our class showed up with pulleys they built at home.